On Having No Creed but the Bible

Image of The Creedal Imperative
by Carl R. Trueman
Crossway 2012
Paperback 208

I just finished reading a marvelous little tome by Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative, and cannot help but exclaim its merits. It is, in a word, an apologetic for the discipline of systematic theology, but more than this, an apologetic for publicly chronicled and shared systematic theology, subscription to which serves as the standard of ecclesiastical fellowship.

Carl Trueman is, of course, a Presbyterian, and he and I do not subscribe to the selfsame doctrinal standards. This does not detract, however, from his argument, because the creedal imperative for which he argues is not one of specific content, but one of principle. Trueman naturally favors his own creedal/confessional standards, but argues that even a flawed confession can be superior to none at all. To that end Trueman magnanimously appends to his work a bibliography of confessions and polity manuals from several ecclesiastical traditions.

That creeds are sometimes treated as independent, a priori sources of authority is an unfortunate reality. But this reality does not detract from their value as a posteriori summaries of biblical teaching. Indeed, Trueman argues, the development of such summaries is a matter both of (1) biblical propriety and (2) ecclesiastical necessity.

After spending a chapter detailing and dismantling the cultural case against creeds, Trueman establishes in his second chapter the philosophical and biblical foundation for creeds. It is here that Trueman makes his most preposterous claim, viz., that creeds and confessions are biblical, so it is well worth slowing down to summarize (and applaud) his argument:

  • First, creeds. Creeds are brief, pregnant summaries of transcendent truth essential to “the faith,” and thus necessary to church membership. They are observable in Scripture in Paul’s summary of truths that are “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3–4), his “word of faith” (Rom 10:9–10), and also the “elementary principles” (lit. the ‘first word’) of the Christian faith described in Hebrews 5:12 and 6:1–2. Examples of such creeds are also found in 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:16; and Philippians 2:5–10.
  • Second, confessions. A confession is a “form of sound words” that more comprehensively summarizes the church’s message/mission and constitutes a “tradition” to be transmitted by faithful men to other faithful men. As such, subscription to a confession is logically necessary to office-bearing. The idea of confessions is discoverable in the paradosis of 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6; and 1 Corinthians 11:2; and in the didache of Acts 5:28; Romans 6:17; 16:17; 2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 1:9ff; and 2 John 9, 10. Remarkably, Paul and the other NT writers never exhort elders to memorize the Bible (profitable though that exercise surely is). And that is because they know that the mastery of Bible content is alone inadequate to qualifying a man for ministry; rather, the mastery and embrace of the paradosis is paramaount.

In his third chapter Trueman goes on to establish, through a survey of the seven ecumenical creeds, that “many Christian doctrines can only exist in a stable form within a relatively complex network of related doctrines” (p. 19). Biblical theology, helpful though it may be, simply cannot offer to the Church all that it needs to harmonize and encapsulate the core teachings of Scripture. To have no creed but the Bible is to revert to the brushpile of biblical truth claims that dominated the ante-Nicene church prior to the normalization process that occurred during the conciliar period of the church. Trueman demonstrates masterfully that by rejecting such creeds, the church becomes far more vulnerable to the “traditions of men” than by embracing them.

Chapter four details the major Protestant creeds and establishes the need for the perpetuated demarcation of “honest differences” within orthodox Protestantism. While Trueman concedes that evangelical coalitions may survive on the minimal basis of “mere Christianity,” churches most emphatically cannot. The concatenation of mutually exclusive ideas on ecclesiastical identity, membership, polity, and mission that marks creedless churches is such that it ultimately cannot possibly avoid destroying those churches.

The book closes with a chapter on confession as praise (promoting creedal vibrancy rather than lethargy) and a summary chapter on the value of creeds to the church.

Conclusion

All churches and all Christians have creeds/confessions. Some have public, accessible, and verifiable creeds; others hide them behind the falsely pious facade of biblicism. Here at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, we have a creed to which students must submit for admission, and a comprehensive confession or statement of faith to which the faculty subscribe annually. Carl Trueman might well approve (in principle at least). So do I.

[node:bio/mark-snoeberger body]

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Kevin T. Bauder's picture

Trueman distinguishes creeds from confessions, arguing that adherence to creeds is a sine qua non of church membership while subscription to confessions is a requirement of church leadership (office holding). Creeds summarize what we would call the fundamentals of the faith, while confessions summarize the distinctives of the particular church.  So for Presbyterians like Trueman, church membership hinges upon profession of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, while church leadership hinges upon subscription to the Westminster standards.

This distinction works well in churches that assume Presbyterian polity, i.e., churches that are governed by elders rather than by the congregation. For churches that are governed congregationally, however, it does not work out so well. In congregational churches, not only the officers, but the church as a whole, is responsible for maintaining the system of faith. That system goes beyond the fundamentals and includes the distinctive doctrines of the church. Consequently, adherence to whatever distinctives the church intends to maintain must be required of members as well as officers.

Granted, the standard for church leadership is higher. Church leaders must possess a more comprehensive knowledge of the system of faith. They must also have the ability to teach it. This is true at the level of fundamentals as well as of distinctive teachings.

For example, an elder ought to be able to explain the significance of the virgin birth and to defend its importance. A new member may be frankly perplexed by the virgin birth and find it inexplicable--but must not deny it. A Baptist pastor must be prepared to defend the importance of believer baptism as a standard for church membership. An individual member may not understand the entire importance of baptism, but must submit to the ordinance and must be prepared to uphold it in the church's order.

In a congregationally governed church, distinctives that are maintained only by leaders and not by members will soon cease to be distinctive even for leaders.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I can see the problems w/Trueman's model in congregational churches. I wonder though if a solution might be to consciously and continuously teach the confession(s) from the top down... so that the membership standard, while lower, is continually being exceeded.

Not sure I'm saying it well, but if the members are moving upward while the leaders are teaching downward, the dual purposes of creed/confession might work pretty well.

Charlie's picture

I understand the concerns raised by Dr. Bauder, but I think it's important to stress that the Presbyterian model is made to address a realistic situation: not everyone is in the same place. 

To give an extreme example, I was once a member of a Bible (in other words, Baptist) church, a good one, that had a funny church covenant. It stated that every member of the church had to agree heartily and without reservation embrace each and every principle stated in the confession of faith and governing documents. That was about 30 pages of material, some of which was a bit eccentric and definitely showed the time and circumstances of the church's founding (surprise: church split). Furthermore, the principles of incorporation, or whatever that document is called that gives a non-profit legal identity, stated that any modification of those documents would result in the dissolution of the church and the liquidation of the property to a certain organization that was prominent in the founding of the place.

So, it eventually came about that the documents were just ignored. Most of the pastors disagreed with them on a few small points, which rendered them absolutely worthless for teaching, because of the embarrassing insistence on 100% hearty consent. 

But beyond that, it doesn't even make sense. How could a newly converted and baptized Christian, even after a reasonable catechism course, possible have the judgment to proclaim his assent to a series of distinctives ranging from baptismal mode to eschatological timing to worship style to the proper way of articulating the sanctification process? How could a newly baptized child do so? Their hearty consent would signify little more than implicit faith, a trust that what the church teaches is correct, even though they don't understand it.

I do agree with Bauder's point that distinctives held only by church leaders will be lost. But that is an unlikely scenario. Generally speaking, church leaders exert the most spiritual influence in the congregation. Except where the leaders are incompetent, churches conform to the shape of their leaders. Furthermore, in the Presbyterian system, the intention is not to leave the non-officers hanging as if they didn't matter. The last membership question in the PCA church is this: Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to further its purity and peace? This implies that the person applying for membership, whatever his or her background, is approaching the church with a genuine openness and a teachable spirit. I don't see what more can be realistically asked of a person, especially in today's varied church environment.

It may be that there is some middle ground that works better for congregational polity. But to require every member of a congregation to agree to a detailed list of distinctives that many of them don't or can't understand, just to be properly congregational, seems an exercise in self-deception.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Kevin T. Bauder's picture

Charlie,

Do you affirm the Quicunque Vult? If so, then we are simply talking past one another. If not, well....

Kevin

Charlie's picture

I'm not sure I understand the question. I do affirm the substance of the Creed, but I take issue with the way the requirements for salvation are phrased. 

I read your post again, and I see that we seem to be fairly on the same page. We both affirm that there is a higher standard for leadership. So, it seems that you are not objecting to 2 standards; you are objecting to the line of demarcation being between creed and confession. As I understand, you want all the members to uphold all the distinctives. To have this happen, though, you need a lot of elasticity in your concept of believing and upholding the distinctives. It also seems not to allow for much gradation among matters of importance: all teachings of the church are treated equally, at least from the perspective of membership.

One of the things I have enjoyed about the Presbyterian denominations is that they are able to take in individuals from other traditions, offering them a church home when their other options would be worse. A Reformed-ish Baptist might be comfortable in a PCA church and a real member of a church, even though he does not affirm everything about Presbyterianism. I don't think that making these exceptions makes Presbyterian churches prone to losing their distinctives. In my experience, the pull works the other direction. Having committed to the church, most people in time fully embrace it. 

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Dan Miller's picture

 Dr. Bauder says, "In congregational churches, not only the officers, but the church as a whole, is responsible for maintaining the system of faith." 

I see Gal 1 and 1 Cor 4 calling us to this.

Charlie, your objection seems to be that this means putting responsibility on those unable to complete it:

How could a newly converted and baptized Christian, even after a reasonable catechism course, possible have the judgment to proclaim his assent to a series of distinctives ranging from baptismal mode to eschatological timing to worship style to the proper way of articulating the sanctification process? How could a newly baptized child do so? Their hearty consent would signify little more than implicit faith, a trust that what the church teaches is correct, even though they don't understand it.

With a few very reasonable additions, I think your objection is answered. 

1. The congregation has a responsibility of maturity. 

Members should see this as a responsibility to prepare, learn, and grow so that they are able to do their part in maintaining the faith in their church. 

2. The congregation is led in this by the elders/pastors.

Members should see that these men have been gifted and have studied so that they are able to lead in the maintenance of the faith. 

3. The creed-barrier to church membership must be basic.

Agreement with the doctrinal statement, along with life choices that make the profession credible, should show the church that saving faith is present. 

I think that most churches go way past this in their doctrinal statement. I have seen a few that have a all-must-believe short statement followed by a longer statement that has the things that 'the church' believes. New members must believe the first, and must agree not to teach against the whole. This might be consistent with what you're taking about in terms of peace. 

Jeff Straub's picture

I haven't yet read Carl on creeds, but if Mark is right in his assessment (of which I have no doubt), I will thoroughly enjoy this "tome" (?). Many Baptists today try to make a distinction between creed and confession, suggesting that a creed is what one "must" believe while a confession is merely a summary of what one does believe. In 19th century Baptist life, this distinction is not borne out. Especially at the time of the Campbellite controversy, one sees these two words used interchangably in the literature of the day. Baptists have, until recent history, been a creedal/confessional people. Our churches need to pay careful attention to our creeds and confessions. Like good fences, they make good neighbors. They define boundaries, keeping sheep in and wolves out. Pastors in Baptists churches ought to emphasize our creeds, both current and historic, and use them as a part of our church body life.

Jeff Straub

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I wonder if someone could recommend a good Baptist confession that has some venerability to it, so to speak.

I've been looking (again) at London 1644/1646 but it lacks an article on communion. If I remember right, there is some "spiritual presence" language in the 1689, and while I'm sort of "open" on that question, I'm not comfortable with including it in a doctrinal standard.

And the Philadelphia has some stuff about laying on of hands, etc.

In short, it doesn't seem that there is a Baptist Confession that is historic and also adequate for today. 

To some this alone would be proof that my doctrine's messed up. I'm sympathetic with that. I'd love to say "I'm in full unequivocal agreement with Confession X" but alas, to be a bit ironic, my conscience is captive to the Word of God (as I think some guy name Luther is supposed to have said)

Rob Fall's picture

taken a look at the New Hampshire Confession?

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

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